This is the time of year when we eat more than we should.
How can we not with what seems to be endless trays of candy, cookies and other treats in front of us?
And, there seems to be no harm done, right? We hardly notice any difference after a day of feasting and figure we’ll burn it off later, anyway.
If only it were that simple.
Despite warnings of obesity, high cholesterol, tooth decay and Lord knows what else from overeating, we tend to keep right on shoveling down whatever is within reach.
But maybe there is a better way.
An Associated Press story asked this question: Would you put down that bag of chips if you saw it had 170 calories? What if the label said it would take 16 minutes of running to burn off those calories?
Health experts for years have pushed for clearer food labeling to empower people to make better choices. In the U.S., a recent regulation requires calorie counts on packages to be bigger. Red, yellow and green labels signal the healthfulness of some foods in the United Kingdom. But with obesity rates persistently high, researchers are looking at whether more drastic approaches could help, the AP reported.
One attention-grabbing idea being explored: Labeling foods with “exercise calories,” or the amount of physical activity needed to burn them off. For example, a chocolate bar might say it has 230 calories, alongside icons indicating that amounts to 42 minutes of walking or 22 minutes of running.
With calorie counts, experts worry the information doesn’t mean much if people don’t know how much they should be eating anyway. And with the “traffic light” system, people might not understand why a food is red — is it the fat, the sugar or something else?
It’s no surprise some people don’t pay attention to current labels, but exercise calories might be more useful, said Amanda Daley, a professor of behavioral medicine at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom,
“They may still ignore it, but let’s give it a go. Let’s at least give them a chance to be able to easily understand,” she said.
Not everyone finds the idea compelling. Regardless of whether it gets people to eat less, it could reinforce negative attitudes about exercise, said Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa.
“The idea that exercise is a punishment for eating does not strike me as a good way to promote exercise or healthy attitudes around food,” he said in the AP story.
Frankly, I doubt that knowing you must run a mile to work off a cookie is going to stop me or anyone from eating that cookie — unless there is something at stake. Perhaps a goal would help.
Let’s say you sign up for a race, like the 5K Resolution Run coming up Jan. 4 at Hokuala resort in Lihue put on by the Pu‘uwai Canoe Club. If you were committed to this race, and you knew your friends and family would be there, or at least ask how you did, you probably would pay strict attention to your diet.
I know that as the date of the Honolulu Marathon approached, I paid close attention to what I ate and drink for fear of putting on extra weight. As soon as the race was over, the floodgates opened and I resumed feeding my face.
Instead of trying to find a label that can finally persuade people to stop eating unhealthy foods, Freedhoff said it would be better to promote environments where it’s easier to make good choices.
For now, it’s unknown how exercise-time labeling would affect choices in the real world. Last week, a BMJ journal published an analysis co-authored by Daley reviewing the limited research so far. The review suggested it may lead people to pick lower-calorie items than no labeling at all. But the evidence was less clear when comparing exercise calorie labeling to specific alternatives like calorie counts alone.
The concept may seem too drastic to ever become reality. But Brian Elbel, a New York University public health expert who studies calorie counts on menus, said other measures — such as soda taxes — also once seemed far-fetched.
“Just because it’s not going to happen tomorrow doesn’t mean it’s not an important thing to look at,” Elbel said.
My recommendation? Set goals that require commitment.
The Resolution Run is right around the corner, so this would be a good time to test your resolve. You can register at resolutionrunkauai.com.
Seeing you at the starting line.
And yes, they’ll have food and drink afterward!
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.